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Here at last: UK swimming looking to make a splash at SEC Championships

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Head swimming coach Gary Conelly has prepared his team all season long for the SEC Championships. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Head swimming coach Gary Conelly has prepared his team all season for the SEC Championships. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky swimming team is gearing up for its most important meet of the season: the 2013 Southeastern Conference Swimming and Diving Championships. Actually, UK has been preparing for this meet all season long.

One meet specifically, however, may have propelled the Wildcats into this week's competition in College Station, Texas.

The Kentucky and Louisville rivalry is as simple as it is complex. While both universities are within just an hour's drive from one another making the proximity the main culprit for the ferocity of the rivalry, it has many layers to it that have turned it into what it is today.

That rivalry does not exist in basketball and football alone. Each varsity sport that Kentucky and Louisville share has an element of that rivalry, and their swimming and diving programs are no different.

For Kentucky, their recent meeting with the Cardinals in the pool may have struck a nerve with the Wildcats and served as a momentum-shifting turning point for UK as the Cats head into the always-crucial SEC Championships.

"The Louisville meet was by far the most exciting I've ever been a part of," said senior captain Mandy Myers. "My freshman year we won against them and it was a really great meet, but this was the first time in a really long time that I've seen everyone up and excited and ready to go, just focusing on each other.

"I think Louisville was an extremely important meet for us mentally."

It hasn't been an easy season for Kentucky. The SEC is arguably the strongest swimming conference in the country and the Cats have faced several ranked teams - SEC and non-conference alike - along the way.

Head swimming coach Gary Conelly knew his team had a difficult schedule ahead of them, but with that in mind he decided that he would use the regular season as one long training period. Though UK might take some lumps lumps during the season, the Wildcats would grind through the regular season with the intent to make a splash at the SEC Championships beginning Tuesday in College Station, Texas on the campus of Texas A&M.

Since their opening meet of the season against Tennessee and Indiana, the Cats have made improvements on a meet-to-meet basis.

"Every dual meet is an opportunity to practice and get better," said Myers. "I think every meet we've gotten better. Our first meet was against Tennessee and Indiana. It wasn't a great meet, but every meet since then, there have been things that we've worked on and improved."

As the regular season wound down, Kentucky ramped up its performance, and it was evident as the Cats took Louisville to the wire on UK's senior day in late January. Louisville's men were ranked No. 14 heading into the meet while the U of L women ranked No. 17. Each was pushed to the limit on that day as UK's men and women were neck and neck for most of the afternoon. The men's battle went all the way to the last few races before it was decided, but Louisville managed to pull it out down the stretch.

Despite the loss, Kentucky was encouraged by the performance as it signified that everything that they had been doing during the season was starting to payoff.

Kentucky traveled to Cincinnati the following weekend and proceeded to dominate the Bearcats in UK's final dual meet of the season.

Since that day, Kentucky's swimmers have had their total attention aimed at this week, even though the SEC Championships have been circled on their calendars all season long.

As their last two performances of the season would indicate, the Wildcats are peaking at the right time.

"I think we're pretty excited about it," said Conelly. "Everybody looks pretty good in the water right now.

"We've put in a good year of training. We've been focused on this as our primary meet. All of our marbles are in one jar and everyone's excited as we get ready to go."

The last two meets have not only produced some of the strongest results of the season for the Cats, but it's built their confidence up as they head into their most important meet of the season. As they head into action this Tuesday for the conference championships, UK has left no page left unturned.

"This is my fifth year on the team and this is for sure the most confident we've been as a whole," said Myers. "Personally, I feel the same way. I don't really have any doubts going into SECs, and I don't think anyone else does either, so I'm excited to see what happens."

The 2013 SEC Championships will be special for Myers and her fellow seniors. But for Myers, it will be particularly rewarding.

After sitting out all of last season as she rehabbed her shoulder from surgery, Myers, a fifth-year senior, hopes to go out in a big way.

"This year is especially important to me to give everything I have to my teammates because I owe it to them for allowing me to stick around an extra year to get better," said Myers. "I definitely want to leave on a good note for my team."

Kentucky hopes to have its best showing of the season in Texas this week with the prospects of knocking off some of the top-ranked teams in the country. Though winning the event will be a tall task, UK can gain several small victories with a strong team showing as well as seeing individuals qualify for the NCAA Championships during this meet.

While Kentucky has been looking forward to this opportunity all season long, success in the SEC Championships would not only validate the Cats' hard work all season, but it could bring strong returns for the future of the UK swimming program for years to come.

"It's enormous," said Conelly of having a strong performance this week. "It's clearly the toughest league in the country. Any time you're moving up through that conference, that's a good perception everywhere.

"To get the athletes to the NCAAs makes it even better. Fortunately, we've had a really good recruiting class this year, so I have a pretty strong sense we're going upward anyway, but this would just get the ball moving even more."

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